Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 589

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The most obvious distinguishing feature of Simon’s novels is his radical break with traditional forms of fiction. His avant-garde style is inextricably interwoven with his themes. The narrator of The Battle of Pharsalus describes things and people as he observes them; he also intermixes sense memories and fantasies with his descriptions. This mixture of thought processes and sensations produces a style that goes a step beyond the stream-of-consciousness technique. By this method of narration, Simon is reinforcing his idea that all human experience is one. The past and the present are not distinct time periods for him, but a blend of experiences that cannot be neatly divided.

Another theme in The Battle of Pharsalus is the sadness of the human condition. O. continually repeats that he suffers. He suffers mainly from jealousy, his inability to trust his lover, as Uncle Charles suffered over Odette. This theme of jealousy, unfaithfulness, and their hurt is also developed in a scene in which Charles goes to Van Velden’s studio to find Odette. There, Charles is confronted by Van Velden’s jealous wife, who seems certain that her husband is also having an affair with Odette. Rather than talk directly about her suspicion, Mrs. Van Velden nervously chatters to Charles about her plans to visit Morocco with her husband.

Almost as pervasive as the theme of jealousy in The Battle of Pharsalus is the theme of aggression and hostility. The most obvious examples of aggressive behavior occur in the various battle scenes; yet even lovemaking, in Simon’s depiction of it, takes on aggressive overtones. The soccer players sometimes display extreme aggression, as do the student demonstrators in the Paris streets. The aggression of the crazed, saber-wielding soldier is given a rather mythic stature; the invisible enemies against whom he rants seem real and threatening to him. Taken as a whole, Simon’s view of aggressive behavior is mixed. While he condemns the horrors of war (often by graphic detailing of men’s wounds), he also sees that human struggle can have an ennobling aspect. In Simon’s view, man is doomed to a harsh existence, and anyone who can fight against his oppressors or tormentors has admirable traits.

Simon is at heart a pessimist: He believes that man’s striving to overcome his ultimate fate (death) is valiant, but futile. The author sees death as all-pervasive, present even in the act of lovemaking. The best man can do as he moves toward his annihilation in death is to create powerful works of art. Simon’s use of detailed analyses of famous paintings demonstrates his deep appreciation of and respect for the visual arts. He himself studied painting as a young man but chose a career in writing instead. The Battle of Pharsalus is inundated not only with descriptions of art but also with Simon’s own painter’s use of color and precision. Color especially plays a vital role for Simon and many vivid colors reappear throughout the various scenes; he relies, however, most heavily on yellow and its appearance in sunlight to convey moods. Yellow, for Simon, is both a funereal color and the color of jealousy, as well as of sunlight and gold coins. These basic images fuse with one another throughout the novel. Simon’s use of these images results at times in a lyrical, almost poetic, quality in his prose. Some of his most vivid descriptions of nature remind the reader of those of William Faulkner, whom Simon has acknowledged as an influence in his career.